Writing Craft 101: Genre and Target Audience

Genre: This is the category into which your story fits. There are many, many genres, but some of the popular genres include Romance, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Chick-Lit, Action/Adventure, and Young Adult, among others.

These category headings are what you’d see at the tops of shelves in a bookstore.

Within these major genres are sub-genres and mixed genres.

For example, in the Romance category you could have Paranormal Romance, Historical Romance, Contemporary Romance, LGBTQ Romance, Amish Romance, and countless others.

In the Sci-Fi category you could have Hard Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Time Travel, Near Future, Alternate History, Dystopian, and so on. Your story may span multiple genres and sub-genres, but if you went into a bookstore, where would you look for it? What books would you find it next to? What expectations might a reader have when picking up your book based on the section they found it?

Knowing your genre is important for finding your target audience, and vice versa. Many authors want to break out of traditional genre labels, and create their own genre. While your story should be new and fresh and unique, discarding all labels won’t really help you, because no one will know how to find your book and publishers and marketers will have a very hard time placing it. Agents, editors, and publishers want to know where your story fits so they know whether or not it will be something they can sell.

For example, if you purchase a YA Dystopian novel on Amazon, Amazon will then suggest other books in the same genre, rather than suggesting some obscure, label-free mash-up, which may be excellent but that their algorithms don’t recognize as similar. The same thing applies in bookstores. If you put “sci-fi” as your genre but your book really appeals more to epic fantasy lovers, the people who are browsing the sci-fi shelves will put yours back and move on to things that are more appealing to them.

Narrowing your story down to one primary genre and one or two sub-genres will help you sell your book. Knowing your target audience will help you to narrow it down.

Target Audience: Your target audience is the readers who are most likely to buy your book. If you’re writing romance, your target audience is probably women in the 25+ age range. If you’re writing Young Adult, your target audience is probably teens and twenty-somethings. If you’re writing suspense or hard sci-fi, your target audience is probably men. These are very broad generalizations, of course, but getting an idea of who you’re trying to appeal to will help you in your genre categorization.

Your target audience will parallel to an extent with your main character. Is your main character a woman on a search to find herself in a male-dominated corporate environment? If so, your target audience is likely 30-something women, and you’d categorize your story in Women’s Fiction or Chick Lit.

Is your main character a battle-hardened Special Forces male, trying to finish one final mission before retiring? Then your target audience is probably going to be men, and your primary genre will be Action/Adventure or Suspense.

Are your main characters a group of teens who discover they have special powers and have to balance figuring out their gifts with leading normal teenage lives? Then your target audience is probably teenagers and your primary genre is going to be Young Adult.

There is plenty of room for crossover and expanding your fan-base beyond your target audience. For example, a lot of people read Young Adult fiction. The Harry Potter series, the Divergent series, the Hunger Games series, and many others are marketed as YA, even though they have mass market appeal. If your story is good, you’ll draw in readers beyond your initial genre and target audience, but you have to start somewhere.

Take some time to browse around a bookstore or on Amazon and check out what books that are similar to yours are categorized as. Think about who your main character is and who is most likely to read your story. Then, add all those components together and label your story in a specific genre.

Show and Tell

Show and Tell refers to the way you get information to your reader. You can tell your reader, “It was just about sunset when he kissed her goodnight,” or you can show them, “Rosy fingers of fading light painted her cheeks with a soft glow as he leaned in to kiss her goodnight.” There is a time and a place for telling, but for important scenes, showing is much more engaging to your reader.

Learning to show instead of tell your scenes is vital for making your reader feel. This is important, because the more your reader can feel, the more he or she will be involved in the story and the less likely they are to put your book down. The closer your POV, the easier it is to show something.

Showing is about letting your reader experience the action along with your character. Showing is about taking your reader on an emotional journey. Showing is about making your reader feel for your character and become invested in how the story plays out.

Sometimes, there are things you simply must tell your reader. There is certain information that you have to convey. Things about your world, about your character’s past, or other things you have to let your reader in on for them to understand the story. The goal, then, is to show this information in the most interesting way possible.

Not every scene has to be an exquisite, poetic masterpiece. You don’t need to describe every sunset or the way the rain feels every time a drop lands. Sometimes it’s okay to simply say “It was raining.” But the more you can let your reader feel the splash of water on her face as your character trudges through a storm, the more you can convince your reader that he is tasting the foul slime as your character eats the bug he must consume to survive, the better.

As with backstory, you want to insert necessary information in as small of chunks as possible, only as much as your reader needs to know right now, and do it by making it as interesting as possible.

Do this by having your character interact with the world as much as possible.

For example, if your character needs to convey something about his past that he already knows but the reader doesn’t, have something trigger a memory, like a song or a picture in a store window. Or have him tell another character about the experience. Or have someone else point it out, like, “You always do this, ever since that one time.”

Or, suppose a specific religious ritual is important for your plotline, and you need to convey how the ritual is performed. Have your character go to the church or the temple or the altar and perform the ritual in a context that isn’t vital to the plot, so that when you get to the plot point and performing the ritual is a pivotal moment, the reader already knows why the character is going through certain motions and performing certain motions.

You can also use internal monologue, especially if you’re in a deep POV. Let’s say your character is a demon hunter and you need the reader to know that the only way to kill this specific type of demon is by a silver sword through the heart. You can show the demon appearing in the character’s path, and then have the character say to himself, Oh, great. A stoneheart demon. And I left my silver sword at home.

Again, you’re showing the information by letting the character interact with the world in order to bring that information to light.

How can you tell if you’re telling instead of showing?

Imagine your story is a movie. As the camera pans the scene, anything you can see in the shot you can describe, in order to set your scene. Anything the character notices from his point of view can be described, along with his reaction to it. Anything the character says or reads can be shown.

If, as you’re imagining your story in movie form, you need a narrator to explain something—if you need the narrator to talk about the architecture or the religious symbolism or the history in a scene, or so on—you’re telling instead of showing.

You want your reader to hear the narrator’s voice as seldom as possible, if at all. The more narration you have, the less engaging your story will be. If there’s a way to have another character play the part of narrator and explain things you need explained, that’s better, but ideally, you should have as much as possible come out as your character interacts with her world.

Writing Craft 101: Active Sentences

Using active sentences instead of passive sentences is a technique that will elevate your writing to a much more advanced level. This concept has to do with the active voice and the passive voice in grammar.

As you might guess, as in many other aspects of life, being active in writing is better than being passive. “Active sentences” is another grammar term, having to do with active voice and passive voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing whatever is being done in the sentence. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb.

To put it simply, active = doing, passive = being done.

For example: “Dr. Jekyll consumed the potion,” vs. “The potion was consumed by Dr. Jekyll.”

You’ll often in writing circles to avoid using the word “was” or any other form of the “to be” verb.

Notice the difference in this story:

 

Passive: She was running through the forest as fast as she could. Her legs were getting tired, but she couldn’t stop. The beast was after her. Soon, she’d be at the village, and then she would be safe.

Active: She ran through the forest. Her legs burned, muscles throbbing, but she couldn’t stop. The beast behind her growled. She only had to push on for a few more steps. Safety lay at the village, just ahead.

 

See how much more engaging the second version is? They use the exact same number of words, but one is infinitely more interesting to read.

As with all of these “rules” for writing, there is a time and a place for passive writing. Sometimes it’s just more concise. Not every sentence needs to be a poetic masterpiece. Depending on what your paragraph or chapter is trying to accomplish, sometimes, “It was hot,” is better than, “the blazing sun scorched him as soon as he stepped outside.” Sometimes the passive voice works.

But, as a general rule, writing active sentences is more engaging, more interesting, and more professional than writing in the passive voice.